Daniel McConnell: Can the centre hold or will Fine Gael swing right?

There is an onus on the party to eke out its true definition, as a right-of-centre party, and put a real end to civil war politics, writes Daniel McConnell.

Daniel McConnell: Can the centre hold or will Fine Gael swing right?

There is an onus on the party to eke out its true definition, as a right-of-centre party, and put a real end to civil war politics, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

Tony Blair - the most successful leader ever of the British Labour Party - gave a talk recently in London about its 120-year history.

He spoke of its proud traditions, its contribution to British society, and its many high achievements in office.

He also, however, spoke of the party’s recurring habit of dragging itself to the left and making itself politically unfit for office: “Out of the 120 years, Labour has been in power for just over 30 of them. That is a stark statistic.

We now have another Tory government for five years and possibly for 10. Were that to happen, Labour would have been in office for less than one-quarter of its entire existence.”

“Bluntly, what Labour has stood for, in terms of values, has been magnificent, its achievements in government huge.

But as a political competitor, it too often been a failure. It has only once been elected for two successive full terms, only once for three, both as New Labour, a period much of today’s party wants to disown,” he said, in acknowledging his own current toxicity.

“Labour has spent long stretches in opposition, elected spasmodically, so the conservatives could take a breather before the natural order of things resumed, ie. a Tory government. Labour, when it has won, has always won because it’s secured the centre of British politics, addressed the future, and broadened its appeal. And yet, despite this obviously being true, we’ve exhibited an extraordinary attachment to retreating into a narrow part of the left, which has always ended in defeat,” Blair said.

Blair argued that centrist politics must be re-examined if his party is to remain relevant in the face of the rise of nationalist populism.

In an Irish context, Blair easily could have been speaking about Fine Gael. It, too, has long played second fiddle to the previous party of government, Fianna Fáil, and it endured many long stretches in opposition, before the seismic election of 2011.

Just twice in 25 elections, since 1937, has Fine Gael found itself as the largest party (in 2011 and 2016) and with Election 2020, Fine Gael has been relegated to third-largest party for the first time ever.

Fine Gael has lost its second election in a row, and having clung to power in 2016, it remains, ironically, in the mix for government yet again. Without question, the best interest of the party is to go into opposition, regroup, detoxify after nine years in office, and re-enter the human race.

But, with Fianna Fáil’s current refusal to contemplate a coalition with Sinn Féin and Mary Lou McDonald, Fine Gael will be needed in government to save us from a second general election.

It is reeling from the loss of 15 seats since 2016, on top of the loss of the other 26 it held between 2011 and 2016. Among the big names unseated this time were: Pat Breen, Clare; Catherine Byrne, Dublin South-Central; Michael D’Arcy, Wexford; Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, Laois-Offaly; Pat Deering, Carlow-Kilkenny; Regina Doherty, Meath East; Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Dún Laoghaire; Tom Neville, Limerick County; Kate O’Connell, Dublin Bay South; Noel Rock, Dublin North-West; Andrew Doyle, Wicklow and Sean Kyne, GalwayWest.

Fine Gael is at a crossroads. And some at the top end of the party think it is time to abandon the centre ground, which it has sought to occupy since 2011, and to shift even more to the right of centre.

“We sort of played at being the catch-all Fianna Fáil-type party, but it does not suit us. We need to be more defined, more deliberate as to how we address our base and those who want to vote Fine Gael,” was the view of one minister.

In recent days, soundings from senior party players have shown that there is a belief that centrism is no longer viable in the face of such a fractured left.

They see there is an onus on the party to eke out its true definition, as a right-of-centre party, and put a real end to civil war politics and allow the real left-right split finally occur in the Dáil.

“Trying to be all things to all people is the Fianna Fáil way; it might work for them, but it will never work for us. If we try it, we will end up being nothing to no-one. Call them what you like, the squeezed middle, the coping classes... they must be our priority. Everyone may not agree with us, but I will give Fine Gael definition,” then leadership candidate Leo Varadkar told Fine Gael delegates during the hustings in 2017.

Hitting out at his rival, Simon Coveney, who said the party must work for all, even those who don’t vote for you, Varadkar responded by saying: “You can’t be all things to all men, because you end up being nothing to everyone.”

Moving to defend his controversial “those who get up early in the morning” line, Varadkar said he was talking about the so-called coping class and squeezed middle, who he said should be Fine Gael’s priority.

“If they aren’t our priority, they’ll be nobody else’s,” he said.

There are plenty who think the Varadkar vision for the party has not yet materialised, but now needs to.

But the views being articulated are not shared by everyone within the top levels of Fine Gael.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, a devout moderate and centrist politician, set out his stall heavily on protecting the centre-ground and has been virtually at one with his opposite number, Fianna Fáil finance spokesman, Michael McGrath, in making sure the centre holds.

He regularly pointed to his last budget — or non-budget, as it contained so little — as an example of doing the right thing: pushing the national finances into surplus, while also unleashing sizeable, but manageable, increases in spending to try to meet the growing demands of an enlarging population.

In all of the budgets Donohoe brought forward, he did not do what many of his party would have liked and lift thousands of low-paid workers out of the tax net. Conscious of the mistakes of the past, in terms of narrowing the tax base too much, Donohoe has sought to do the opposite, as much as he could in a minority government with McGrath sitting on his shoulder.

Donohoe has advocated, time and time again, that the centre-ground is where Fine Gael needs to fight the battle. If Fine Gael does find itself in a three- or four-way government, will it even get the chance to conclude this debate it is having?

It is far too simplistic to put Fine Gael’s election reversal down to fatigue with the party after nine years in office, or unhappiness with the RIC controversy, or failure to deliver on health and housing.

Something far more significant happened in the ballot box three weeks ago, but just what that change was is still not fully clear.

For those articulating the need to shift to the right, the appeal is understandable. Rejected twice now by the electorate when offering a moderate vision for the country, the attraction of leaning to the right for Fine Gael, as a Christian Democratic party, would bring them into line with many of their European colleagues in the European People’s Party (EPP).

But the dangers, as Tony Blair has outlined, of retreating into a narrow part of the right are plentiful, too.

It will be fascinating to see who wins out.

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